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Monitor loudness, but otherwise leave Merriweather alone [Commentary]

It sits amid Columbia's splendid Symphony Woods. It is named after a breakfast cereal heiress who loved classical music. A designer of it was Frank Gehry, perhaps the most famous living architect.

Merriweather Post Pavilion is the crown jewel of Columbia's arts venues, a performance stage ranked as the No. 2 amphitheater in the nation by Billboard magazine (beat only by the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles). It is an integral part of James Rouse's vision of a Columbia that fulfills the harmony between life, work and leisure. All Columbians embrace it.

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Well, not all. In fact, it is driving some of them crazy. A bone of contention that has existed since Merriweather was built has resurfaced — the rock concerts there are loud.

And therein lies the rub. For all its aesthetic aspirations and alternative uses (high school graduations are held there), Merriweather is a major rock venue. Screaming Stratocasters and thundering Gretsch piles are more apt to be heard than violins and oboes. This has been unchanged for decades.

Because it opened in 1967 (two years before Woodstock), hardly any Columbians can claim it was foisted upon them after they moved in. It has hosted Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and The Who, three of the most stupendously loud acts in history. Anyone who moves to Columbia, especially near Town Center, and is shocked when the first blistering guitar solo wafts onto their patio at the gin-and-tonic hour on a Saturday hasn't done his or her homework.

Still, there are, and should be, limits. County health department rules limit the decibel level permitted to reach certain distances beyond the venue. Performances are supposed to end at 11:30  p.m. We are certain these limitations are part of every contract signed with every band. We believe these signatures are made in good faith.

We also believe that rock musicians, invoking the spirit of Dionysus more than Apollo, spurred by fans living in an ecstatic moment, may create performances that cast a shamanistic spell so overwhelming it erases the boundaries of propriety that govern time, space and decibels.

That being said, laws are laws. We think the ones in place are a good fit for the situation and should not be made more restrictive. We think county health officials should continue monitoring loudness and level punitive charges if violations occur.

Otherwise, leave Merriweather alone. If it is essential in your life that you hear the crickets in your yard around sunset on summer weekends in Town Center, maybe Columbia is not your cup of suburbia.

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